From Mom-Envy to "Schadenf-abulous"

Photo by: Elizabeth Sullivan

"In my work with mothers, I find a particular, stinging brand of envy--envy of other moms. Many great mothers are convinced that they are the only one who is feeling so overwhelmed and isolated--so cross and so exhausted."   -Elizabeth Sullivan, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern 

From Mom-Envy to "Schadenf-abulous"
by Elizabeth Sullivan

Envy sucks. It’s one of the worst feelings to feel. But like many of the so-called seven deadly sins and other human feelings, I believe it brings us gifts if we examine the feelings instead of stuffing them down.

In my work with mothers, I find a particular, stinging brand of envy--envy of other moms. Many great mothers are convinced that they are the only one who is feeling so overwhelmed and isolated--so cross and so exhausted. What I hear goes something like, “I am at the end of my rope. What is wrong with me? I wanted kids so much; I used to be crazy about my husband. Everyone else seems to be managing just fine, they seem happy.”

Sometimes material things stand in for the feelings, “they can afford so much! we are barely scraping by”; but most often what I find is that moms really envy the way that other moms seem to feel: calm, happy and satisfied.

Unfortunately, those other moms are totally lying.

Just kidding! But not exactly. Ok, there may be a few perfect moms, and I am sorry they are all in my your kid’s classroom. But mostly we are all putting a good face on it, pulling it together and getting it done. While you know yourself that you have not showered and you whisper-yelled “thanks for nothing!” at your husband just before you showed up for your kid’s play, few other people are picking up on this--they are too preoccupied by their boss’s irritation and their kid’s recent headaches. As someone who listens very carefully to moms all day I am willing to stake my life that this is true: women are telling me what they don’t want anyone else to know. And the very moms confessing painful envy are often envied themselves by others without really knowing it.

When I speak to clients about this, it doesn’t really help much at first. They are often skeptical and don’t really accept it. But over time, it helps them identify the very subtle ways that people can express their envy when it does come up. Suddenly a friend saying, “Your kid is so polite; how do you get him to say please and thank you?” is a clue. Instead of brushing it aside, you can take a minute to feel proud. Hey, I did really teach him that, and he does really do it. And you can understand that that may be a place that others feel envious of you. You are not the only one, you are not alone in this difficult experience.

“So maybe others are envious of things about me sometimes,” you think, “I still hate feeling it! I want it to go away. I want to feel happy and good.”

Well, I believe that envy, worked with properly, can be used as a kind of motivational force to make your life better. It feels terrible to walk around carrying envy, but it can also be a kind of warning system to look inward, or to look at one’s own life and think about whether that quality could be acquired. It can motivate us to practice a way of being that we want to grow into ourselves. My own mentor once told me, “we are usually not envious of things that we have no relationship to, we are envious of people who have achieved something we ourselves are probably capable of and want.”

A former client of mine, a new mom, came in grieving the loss of her best friend of many years. They were no longer speaking. My client felt abandoned by her friend, whose support she really needed. As we talked about this complex and very beautiful relationship, what emerged was a portrait of two creative, powerful women. One was a new mother in a long and happy marriage and rewarding career, and the other was a world-traveller, someone exploring meditation, new relationships and very big personal, spiritual growth. But both women felt inadequate and defensive around her friend of late. The other person’s life looked so much better: creative vs. calm, loving vs. exciting. By admitting to her envy of her friend’s freedom and creativity, my client shifted gradually to feeling like she could have access to two lives and even sort of live vicariously through her friend’s adventures. That is, if she could admit to her envy, let it breathe, and still be present. Of course, what she learned in reconnecting and confiding her envy was that her friend was also very envious of her, and that they were coping with a common problem in isolation. The result was a reunion that made them both very grateful and happy; and that added a powerful new dimension to their friendship. They had weathered a truly painful problem with grace.

Of course, all stories of envy are not so perfectly balanced. What about envy of people who really are more successful than you, who are better in tangible ways?

Another client of mine once found some inspiration in being underestimated by the person she envied, though at first it was very painful. (I believe it was also an instance of sexism.)

In a period of transition, and with the hope of networking a bit and growing in her career, my client asked a colleague further along in the business to meet her for coffee and for some advice about her future. She was quite envious of his success and feeling discouraged about her own path which seemed somehow slower and tougher. Her colleague responded by sending her a job description for an administrative position in his company; a job that would be quite inappropriate for her accomplishments. At first, she felt a terrible shame, as if she were somehow being judged unpromising by this person whose position she envied. But after sitting with the feelings, envy, shame, anger--we found that it seemed like this colleague had not even read her email, and may not have remembered who she was and their earlier meetings. He was also a bit of a pompous ass who she no longer wanted advice from! The interaction and the person became less and less important and an emerging feeling of toughness and determination came in. She actually got a boost of new energy from thinking “I’ll show him!”, which made her laugh because that burst of energy had been what she was looking for from meeting up. Although there were no real-life hard feelings, inwardly it helped this woman be more aligned with her own purpose and to feel a sense of joy in overcoming the obstacles in front of her--material and emotional. “I am envious and small,” turned into, “I am tough and determined; I will find connections with more awesome people, and I will help others coming up after me.”.

“The gift of envy” sounds laughable when you are simmering in terrible schadenfreunde; but explored and understood, it can be the key to changing your life for the better.

Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and parent couples learn to self-nurture and thrive. She is a 2012-2013 Fellow at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Center and the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Center at Stanford University. She practices in San Francisco.  @NurtureMoms 415.508.7086

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